“I did what I had to do in order to stay alive because I didn't want my kids to not have a mom. That's the motivating factor for everything I did.”
When Mary Carol (then 43) received a call from her gynecologist in the late evening of mid February 2010, she knew that the news would not be good.
In January, she had been feeling on and off chest pain, so she took her mother (a retired nurse’s) advice and visited the ER, where she received a blood test and antacids. She didn’t suspect anything serious—an upper endoscopy later that month ruled out digestive issues, a stress test at the beginning of February showed great cardiac functioning and she was healthy overall—until her doctor suggested she see her obstetrician for a mammogram. A thallium uptake taken with the stress test had shown excessive blood congregating in her left breast.
As she called her OB-GYN (obstetrics and gynaecology) office upon returning home from the cardiologist visit, Mary Carol felt for a lump and noticed that there was a large mass in her upper left breast. She began to panic, yet she hoped she was mistaken.
At around 8pm on a Wednesday night, her OB doctor returned her call, confirming what she had suspected: yes, her doctor would be scheduling a biopsy for the next day to confirm breast cancer.
Mary Carol remembers sitting on the edge of her bed in her room, praying and crying. She said that it felt like she was told that she was dying.
“Already so many things were strange that I knew she was calling to confirm that what the cardiologist found was likely to be cancer,” she said. “ Still, it was like a roller coaster was going through my head and not in a good way: so much noise and not knowing when the ride would end. This was the beginning of some very bad, dark times and I had no idea where they was going to go.”
Although she was scared for herself, Mary Carol said that she was most worried about her kids—at that time, a second-grade boy, an eighth grade girl and a tenth-grade boy. She didn’t want to be incapacitated to the point where she wouldn’t be able to take care of them.
“I was a control freak in many ways my whole life because I knew what I wanted; I knew where I was going,” she said. “When you're sick there's not much you can do other than go with it.”
The following day, she received a manual breast exam, ultrasound and biopsy.
Then, while at the grocery store on a seemingly ordinary Monday, Mary Carol received the radiologist’s call conclusively telling her that the biopsy had come back positive.
“That shock—being told something like you're dying or you have cancer or someone has just died— is a freezing of time,” Mary Carol said. “I had that feeling when you fall really hard unexpectedly and you don't know what's happening and what the result is going to be or what anything is going to be like.”
That night, Mary Carol and her husband began researching the next steps, setting up doctor appointments and calling loved ones. Then the visits to the oncologist and surgeons began. She learned that she had two tumors: one large one and a smaller one growing out of the first one.
After consulting several doctors along with a friend who was a breast cancer survivor, Mary Carol decided to undergo chemotherapy before having her breasts surgically removed. Her decision felt like “a flip of a coin” influenced by a power greater than herself.
At the beginning of March, Mary Carol had a port (a small plastic disc) implanted into her upper right chest and began receiving chemo treatments about once every month. During the hours that the chemicals were pumped into her body, she would watch videos to distract herself. For the first couple days after the appointments, she would feel fine and then the pain and nausea would hit.
“All your bones ache. All your muscles ache,” Mary Carol said. “You feel like the days are just so long.”
Since Mary Carol was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system) in 2003, her immunity was already weakened due to the medication she had to take. As a result, she spent her days in bed watching movies, listening to audiobooks and sleeping.
She remembers having to refuse hugs from her eight-year-old son telling him: “Mommy can't be held right now.”
“I didn't want to be touched at all. I had pain no matter where you touched me, '' she said. “I remember thinking that [pushing away my son] was horrible and wanting forever to make that better.”
One relief was the support and humor her family provided. For instance, her husband and kids would call her “Dread Pirate Mom,” (after the fictional character referenced in the movie The Princess Bride) when Mary Carol wore a handkerchief, almost like a pirate bandana, around her bald head. Her eldest son also shaved his head in solidarity and everyone pitched in with laundry, dishes and cooking (including preparing a homemade vegetable broth for Mary Carol after chemo appointments).
The hardest chemo treatments continued for 4 ½ months until June, when Mary Carol began doing a lighter chemotherapy. While the pain was almost unbearable for her, she said that she was optimistic, for the chemo immediately began shrinking her tumors.
In July, she was able to attend her five-year family reunion in Canada. That August, she had surgery to remove both of her breasts. She didn’t want to risk a cancer recurrence.
I did what I had to do in order to stay alive because I didn't want my kids to not have a mom,” Mary Carol said. “That's the motivating factor for everything I did.”
Afterward, the recovery was “very long and horrendous.” After her second surgery in February of 2011, she had to keep receiving Herceptin chemo; after getting breast implants, she had to have fluids removed from her body with tubes and drains.
“You feel like you are not human, like you’re part fake because you've got all these tubes,” she said.
But, Mary Carol said that she was extremely grateful that she had a trusting relationship with her oncologist, access to medical resources, and friends and family to support her.
“Once I was free of cancer, I was super grateful and I remember thinking that every day is a gift,” she said. “I was so lucky that I could trust and let go, kind of like I was sitting in a boat without oars and just going with the flow.”
After getting her port removed in September, Mary Carol completed her counselor training at Pioneer High School and received her Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) credential later that fall.
At first, she worried that she was going back to work too soon and wouldn’t be able to withhold the fear, grief and pain she had felt throughout the previous year. However, she soon found that the emotions she had experienced help her relate to others struggling through difficult circumstances.
“I found that I could bring more to the table for a student than I could before,” Mary Carol said. “I know what it feels like to feel out of control and I can really sympathize and empathize with people now. I'm just very grateful.”